"Authoress and Businesswoman: Success, Money and Gender in Gone with the Wind" by Krisztina Lajterné Kovács
Krisztina Lajterné Kovács is a doctoral student in the British and American Doctoral Program at the University of Debrecen. Her research pertains to the comparative and contrastive study of two 1930s bestsellers, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Email:
The impact of Gone with the Wind (1936) on the reading public was immediate and its lure has never ceased since then. The novel and its film version became enduring cultural phenomena: the hysteria around the author would have been hard to cope with even for a modern celebrity. Both academic critics and book cover reviewers have felt bound to reflect on the novel’s financial success, and Mitchell’s work is often referred to as the second or third best selling book after the Bible. A whole industry has been built upon the Gone with the Wind phenomenon but it still occupies a peculiar cultural place, since the tremendous, unending popularity stands in sharp contrast with its tentative, almost dubious position in literary criticism.
Margaret Mitchell had always emphasized that survival is the main theme of her novel, and most of her critics eagerly accepted this point, yet they overlooked that it is a woman who survives by transgressing many boundaries which govern the society in which she lives. Through the figure of Margaret Mitchell as an author and her heroine, Scarlett O’Hara as a businessperson, I am exploring in the American and the Southern context what happens when a woman enters the public sphere, earns money and becomes famous. The novel’s financial success and its main character, the “ruthless” businesswoman touched taboo-like issues in the American concept of culture. Scarlett survives hardships and flourishes by playing on the masculine playground of business by means of both feminine and masculine rules. She skillfully utilizes the web of Southern myths and metaphors, which makes her actions utterly unpredictable.
Gone with the Wind is still known as a traditional Southern romance, but even Mitchell distanced herself from this category by insisting, that “I don’t mean that I wrote a sweet, sentimental novel of the Thomas Nelson Page type” (qtd. in Harwell 5). Moreover, the second half of the novel takes place in an urban setting and Mitchell details Scarlett’s business activities and her peculiar approach to familial ties in a way which makes the character round and justifiable, since her deeds are well-reasoned throughout the narrative. Scarlett has always found true ladyhood problematic, which, on the other hand, has always meant security and social standing to her, rather than inner posture and moral standing, as it was embodied by her mother. After the war she did everything to regain and to preserve the ladyhood, as she conceptualized it: “The silly fools don’t seem to realize that you can’t be a lady without money” (594). Also, her inner conflicts caused by her “blood,” her paternal heritage of virility and obstinance, and the deeply internalized maternal teachings, symbolize the clashes between the old Southern values, attached to birth and heritage and a Northern type of capitalist culture. Many critics seem to neglect this aspect of the novel, or if it is reflected on at all, Scarlett is judged in connection to the tenets of proper femininity and to the moral aspects attributed to Southern womanhood. The judgement and criticism of her business activities and her relationship with other characters are determined by the fact that she is a woman, thus she is defined as immoral, which label a similar male character would more easily elude.
Women’s (Im)proper Roles
As Jessica Benjamin points out in her interpretation of Max Weber’s economic ideology, “the idea of the individual in modern liberal thought is tacitly defined as masculine even when women are included” (184). She argues that in the Western culture, due to its cultural values and patterns of childrearing, the necessary tension between “asserting the self and recognizing the other” (53), which entails mutual recognition between two or more subjects, breaks down. The psyche splits the elements of mutual recognition into conflicting notions, like domination and submission, autonomy and dependency, which are culturally attached to the constructions of masculinity and femininity. This pattern governs the idea of the separate spheres, the division between the feminine private and the masculine public, that came about especially when the places of production (workplace) and consumption (household) became separated (Weber 16).
In the South, female consciousness and feminism developed later and along slightly different lines than in the rest of the United States, since the grounds out of which feminist movements emerged were tentative or missing, due to such factors as economic and demographic structures, and, most significantly, the Southern ideal of honor (Perry 234). Also, the Southern economy was primarily based on agriculture, that is, mainly on the cultivation of “cash crops” (Robertson 83). Generally, workplace and home were usually the same. Femininity was a doubly loaded term since it formed the very basis of the Southern cultural and economic system. After the Confederate defeat in the Civil War and the success of the suffrage movements in the 1910s, images of women as morally pure and sacrificing creatures strengthened to send women back to their homes and to their “natural roles” (Weaks 41). The dichotomy between the good and the bad woman, and between the belle and the matron served as a control over female sexuality to protect the white family line (qtd. in Weaks 281). As Anne Jones argues, “Each role [was] defined by its sexual and reproductive importance” (281). According to Nancy Woloch, the antebellum ideal of Southern womanhood was shaped solely by men (146). However, as time passed, most women internalized this image, or as Mitchell indicated it in her novel, it was “a happy feminine conspiracy” which gave women everything “except credit for having intelligence” (155). The ideal Southern woman’s commitment and self-sacrifice extremely reflect the lack of subjectivity entailed in proper femininity, moreover, the Southern lady represented the legitimacy of a particular social system.
The only acceptable way of life for a woman in the South was provided by the institution of marriage. Being betrothed, married, or widowed meant that one stayed within the boundaries of respectable womanhood. Romances usually dramatize a young, innocent girl’s struggle to get married so that she can secure her social position. In the South, it was essential for most woman to get married, because respectable women enhanced the honor of the whole family (Wyatt-Brown 91), moreover, “there were no appropriate alternatives. Women’s money-making occupations were chiefly confined to doing the work of other women in the home” (87). Prostitutes, on the other hand, were selling their sexuality and femininity more openly, which was acceptable, yet had to be marked and distinguished from the rest of society, as for instance, the painted red hair of Belle Watling, the prostitute in Gone with the Wind, differentiates her from respectable women. In the novel, Scarlett and Belle are often paralleled as doubles, for instance both are supported by the same men. After Scarlett made up her mind to sell herself in order to save the plantation, she had to realize that the seemingly rigid boundaries between a wife and a paid woman can be defined flexibly. A woman receives the same things from a marriage and a liaison: “something to eat and a lot of work and having to put up with a man’s foolishness—and a baby every year” (815). She performs the same tactics when trying to seduce Rhett Butler and Frank Kennedy, indicating that marriage and sexual affair are attractive to women for one reason, that is, to gain money and position. Scarlett separates romantic love from marriage and she holds it in a secure distance (by being attracted to another woman’s husband and not realizing that she is in love with her husband) so that it does not curb her autonomy, yet she cannot fully avoid romantic thinking patterns. As both Nancy Woloch (272) and Harriett Hawkins argue, in women’s case “art” and “heart” are opposed to each other as evil and good (Hawkins 42):
If a gifted young woman … had shown the dedication to her own genius and likewise refused to serve any man …, she would consequently (the prospect otherwise might seem simply too attractive to other women?) have to be shown to suffer for her sins and/or deemed to be as monstrous, as unnatural, as “lacking” in true ‘womanhood’…. (Hawkins 54)
Mitchell eventually “punishes” Scarlett, when she, due to her blindness regarding interpersonal relations, loses Rhett Butler, Melanie and Ashley Wilkes, the three people who supported her in her struggles, yet she still owns her plantation, money, and business to control her own future.
In the 1920s, when Mitchell wrote her novel, the choice between love, domestic happiness and having a career, or at least to fulfill one’s ambitions were forming many women’s lives. Elaine Showalter calls the 1920s “feminism’s awkward age,” when many young women were disillusioned of the feminist struggles of their mothers, thus their own tensions between self-fulfillment and traditional female roles were not regarded by them as a women’s question (105-06). Margaret Mitchell’s mother was an ardent feminist who influenced her daughter’s future ambitions. Mitchell in fact “failed” in the role of the Southern lady by “not marrying early and well, for not producing heirs” (Entzminger 104), yet she did leave her medical studies to take over her father’s household after her mother’s death.
The Gone with the Wind Phenomenon
Even before the official release of Gone with the Wind, MacMillan Co., the publisher, consciously started to create a web of legends and myths around the novel and the author, which culminated in an up to that time unprecedented, nationwide hysteria. In contrast to, or maybe because of, this, the literary establishment of the 1930s reacted with ambivalent and heated debates upon the novel as a work of art, but more eagerly upon its popular reception and its huge commercial success, so they correctly, and desperately recognized that part of its power would lie in its popularity, especially among women. As time went by, the critical and academic community started to brood over the reasons of the huge success it generated, which was problematic in connection to the classification of high and popular culture, and which cast light upon the role of the reading public, who, to a growing extent, decides over a cultural artefact simply by buying it or not. The case of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom is exemplary, since it was also published in 1936, but the readers (and the Pulitzer Prize Committee) favored Mitchell’s novel (Rubin 81).
The most well-known accusations pertaining to Gone with the Wind as a proslavery, racist propaganda novel have been on the critical agenda mostly since the 1960s, in the wake of the Civil Rights movements (attacks and criticism by blacks indeed emerged but these were formulated on different grounds). Before that, as it is clear from contemporary texts, the critics were preoccupied, if not obsessed, with the novel’s immediate popularity and high sales, together with worries on its unique and dangerous female perspective. “Going with the Wind,” Malcolm Cowley’s short book review from 1936, well illustrates these points. First, he introduces the chronological data of the publication history of the novel. After listing the breathtaking statistics, he concludes that the high sales of this novel indicate a larger trend. Romantic bestsellers written from a woman’ perspective, like Gone with the Wind, change the book market, since women emerge as the chief consumers of such literature, they spend money on it. Female consumers are contrasted to a “larger and less prosperous public that borrows its book from the library” (19). Then comes the most famous phrase in Gone with the Wind criticism, that the novel “is an encyclopedia of the plantation legend” (19). By this, Cowley wholly disregards the second half of the novel. For Richard Dwyer, searching for the causes of “the cool reception,” the paradox between populariy and academic neglect does not go unnoticed. He argues that the sales have stigmatized the novel from the very beginning (21). For the scholar Bernard De Voto the novel failed because its female focus and point of view did not affirm masculine democracy (qtd. in Dwyer 26).
Both contemporaneous and recent critics have recognized that the novel marks the outset of mass production, distribution, and commercialization of culture, which went parallel with the extension of women’s freedom, but not everybody was equally happy about it. From the nineteenth century on, however, the literary presence of women could not be disregarded any more. As Lyn Pickett observes, women’s writings since then have been inseparable from business because most of them were “career writers,” who wrote in order to support their families with their bestsellers, therefore they consciously operated with those themes, plots, and rhetorics which would make their books sell (19). Their works overwhelmed the literary market to such an extent that the double critical standard—as Elaine Showalter called it—came into action to define women authors’ place in the literary establishment (Literature 73-4). In order to maintain the supremacy of high literature, in which almost all canonized writers were male, female literary achievement should be defined as inferior and trifle. If a book sold well—as it was often the case with women’s novels—it was stamped as flippant, romantic, feminine. When other themes and rhetorics, than love and domesticity, emerged in women writers’ novels, the authors could easily provoke to be seen as unfeminine. Even if a woman writer created something extraordinary—which stood in sharp contrast with the traditional concept about femininity—the accusations emerged that not she but a male relative produced the text (A Literature 74). This issue was raised in connection with Mitchell, too. She has recorded her astonishment caused by a newspaper article: “They said they had felt that no woman could have written such a book and, after reading in the paper that my husband collaborated with me in the writing of it, they understood” (qtd. in Harwell, 69). In fact, her husband helped her in the proofreading of the manuscript after it was sold to MacMillan. This assumption could do, what even the harshest criticism could not, “I was completely bewildered at this news” and “I have been unable to do anything but cry ever since I read the clipping” (qtd. in Harwell 70). Consequently, she was also accused of robbing her husband’s royalties on the novel.
This devaluation and feminization of popular best selling literature, however, are rather paradoxical, since as part of the Puritan heritage, success in money-making became an inseparable part of the American ethos as a sign of God’s grace. As Thomas Cochran has argued, business is an American peculiarity, because due to the lack of a landowning aristocracy and an established clergy, business marked the shortest way to success and social recognition (3). In the South, capitalism and industrialization were seen as “ill-bred and Yankeefied” (Mitchell 641). Mitchell reflects on this in her novel, that in the “new country… which asked only that a man be strong and unafraid of work” (45) there was still a “social stigma attached to those in trade” (47). As Amanda Adams claims, the novel was written in a turbulent period when the South tried to redefine itself. The two main intellectual groups, the Nashville Agrarians and the Chapel Hill Regionalists, conducted the social debates about the new roles, values, and ways of life the Southern states should follow (Adams 58, King 170). Tensions between the values of Old South, New South, and North were reflected in Mitchell’s life as well. According to her own upbringing as a Southern lady, she held fame and publicity vulgar, or as Anne Jones summarizes: “In fact, Margaret Mitchell was simultaneously an unreconstructed southerner—a believer in the traditional values of the southern lady—and a new kind of rebel. And out of the tension produced by the conflict of different definitions of southern women, her life—and her novel—grew” (314).
As a reaction to the changing gender roles in the 1930s, the myth of the separate spheres, according to which women belong to the home, while men are working to provide for the family, was propagated more fiercely, since men felt incapable of influencing the world around them and they realized that they could exert control only in their families and over their women (Perry 234-236). Thus the home became the last bastion of uncorruptedness and moral standing. In this climate, a paradoxical situation emerged. If a woman writer wanted to be published, she had to adjust herself to the Southern ideal by promoting proper femininity (Weaks 35), so it was not uncommon, that the most independent and successful women writers produced the most reactionary texts promoting the right feminine behavior. The case with Margaret Mitchell was the same, because she wanted her novel to be accepted and liked by her fellow Southerners—especially by her Atlanta friends. Michener observes this in Mitchell’s private letters: “one is struck, when reading Miss Mitchell’s private letters, by her obsession that the better class of people in Atlanta should like her book” (77); or as Mitchell herself puts it, “I take lots more satisfaction in reading such words than I would in reading that some N.Y. critic had cried aloud that I had indeed written the Great American Novel…But I did want Southerners to like the book” (qtd. in Harwell 45). As Betina Entzminger argues, Mitchell was not alone with this desire. The Southern women writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries both aspired for publication but their writing careers entailed that they were in conflict with the reifying Southern myth of womanhood, and “the price for their popularity seems to have been conformity” (1). Yet, as Carolyn Perry argues, out of women writers’ personal questions developed a modern Southern literature (244) which was, on the other hand, not free of inner conflicts, since conscious and unconscious anxieties influenced it, so reading their texts often meant “reading between the lines.”
The 1930s, with its reactionary attitudes, witnessed new images in women’s literary texts. The stereotypes of misogyny—as Bollobás calls them (262)—the femme fatale, the flapper, the insane and the prostitute, or in the Southern context, the belle are originally old images in Western culture, as they express male fears and fantasies of female sexuality and power. Women writers used, distorted, deconstructed, and parodied these stereotypes, for instance the demure and coquettish traditional Southern belle “has gone bad,” as Entzminger claims (6). Many women writers founded their characters upon the belle figure, yet they transformed it from a stock type to a round character, whose deeds were not unambiguous to be judged from a single moral point of view.
Conflicting Gender Roles
In Scarlett O’Hara one can easily trace the attributes of the flapper, whose mature (that is, proper) sexuality is not awakened, or at least she is not aware of it, therefore she can pursue “masculine” goals of self-fulfillment, self-control, and making money by having her own ways. Scarlett, however feminine she might appear, is an eternally young, androgynous character, who transcends gender binarisms and who feels entrapped and depressed, when forced to fit into such traditional roles as wife, mother, or widow. “She wasn’t a girl who could dance and flirt and she wasn’t a wife who could sit with other wives and criticize the dancing and flirting girls. And she wasn’t old enough to be a widow” (Mitchell 172); and, “war and marriage and childbirth had passed over her without touching any deep chord within her and she was unchanged” (214).
Scarlett cannot adjust herself to the traditional female roles of her society, she is simply not interested in women’s minds. The masculine world of war, violence, and politics seems to be equally irrational and incomprehensible for her. The rationality and predictability of business life prove to be her true sphere and she uses the rules of calculation and planning in her emotional life as well. She is an individualist, who trusts her own skills: “Why, why’, her mind stuttered, I believe women could manage everything in the world without men’s help—except having babies, and God knows, no woman in her right mind would have babies if she could help it” (Mitchell 605). Women are excluded from the masculine world of individualism and autonomy, thus Scarlett occupies a place where she nevertheless feels a stranger. Mitchell emphasizes the constant mutual misunderstanding between her and her environment. The ideas of others do not make sense to her and her “indignation at being misunderstood” (161) mixes with annoyance when others attribute to her feelings she does not feel, or, “whenever she spoke her mind everyone seemed to be shocked” (611). Her conflicting gender roles expand to the questions of individual versus community, of money versus morality, and of old versus new. Scarlett, from the beginning, finds female bondage hard to establish, she feels more comfortable with men and with their ways of conduct, like forthright sincerity and reasoning. Well before she starts her business career, she rejoices in seeing that her father treats her as a boy (32). With her friend and future brother-in-law, Will Benteen she builds a comradeship to strive for a common goal: to make the plantation produce. When later she builds up her business, “she went after [her goal] by the shortest route, like a man, not by the hidden and circuitous routes peculiar to women” (624). Yet when the masculine behavior fails, she easily swithes to feminine tricks to allure men to do business with her.
The Southern lady, sitting leisurely on her pedestal meant a reality only for a selected few. Women had always worked in plantations, factories, hospitals, or schools, they also pursued literary careers, but the ideology to maintain feminine purity required to reason that their works were done out of necessity and sacrifice, thus activities of women were acceptable as long as they were working for others (Entzminger 78). There are other working women in Gone with the Wind besides Scarlett, but Ellen manages the plantation because this is her duty—she neither questions nor enjoys it, and the Atlanta matrons pursue feminine tasks, like baking, teaching, or sewing. After the war, they start business with the help and guidance of their male relatives with the emphasis that they would immediately stop working if the necessity was over. Scarlett’s discontent with feminine decency and women’s roles foreshadows that the war indeed had a liberating effect on her:
A startling thought this, that a woman could handle business matters as well or better than a man, a revolutionary thought to Scarlett who had been reared in the tradition that men were omniscient and women none too bright. Of course, she had discovered that this was not altogether true but the pleasant fiction still stuck in her mind (604).
With the idea that she was as capable as a man came a sudden rush of pride and a violent longing to prove it, to make money for herself as men made money. Money which would be her own, which she would neither have to ask for nor account for to any man. (605)
While she is expecting her second child, she realizes that a woman’s private life and her public roles exclude each other in a society where pregnant women are confined. This means at least six months’ absence from her business, and her desperate recognition that womanhood heavily hampers her actions makes her choose her mills instead of having more children. When Rhett Butler manipulates her into selling her mills, she “felt bereft, as though she had sold one of her children. The mills had been her darlings, her pride, the fruit of her small grasping hands” (953). This implies that there are other outlets for female creativity than reproduction and raising a family.
Mitchell refers to Gerald’s family pattern as “a clannish tribe, clinging to one another in prosperity as well as in adversity, not for any overweening family affection but because they had learned through grim years that to survive a family must present an unbroken front to the world” (49). Scarlett does not feel much love for her sisters, but she willingly accepts her family as her dependents and governs it as a patriarch. Her chief goal to provide for them economically requires a masculine logic and way of thinking. From the perspective which sees women pure and altruistic, she might look selfish, since she regards her family as a unity and for its survival its members sometimes have to be sacrificed. Scarlett steals her sister’s fiancé for the well-being of the whole group thus she sacrifices herself in a marriage for money. She gives her family economic support instead of emotional and moral guidance which was expected of women, instead of her, Melanie, Frank Kennedy, and even Rhett Butler fulfill the role of the domestic nurturer.
Many Southern women writers created strong female characters but most of these women devoted themselves to the community, like Scarlett’s Atlanta friends did. The masculine world of politics and war as “men’s business” are equally distant and intolerable for Scarlett. Louis Rubin, comparing Faulkner’s and Mitchell’s characters, offers this summary:
Both Thomas Sutpen and Scarlett O’Hara, in short, live and function within a complex and sharply drawn community, yet they are not members of that community in any true sense. They are almost completely passionless concerning the things about which the community feels most strongly, and for identical reasons: they have their own private goals and will expend no passion or emotion on anything that does not advance their goals. (85)
Entering the rational space of business and money-making, Scarlett gains autonomy and freedom for which all women secretly envy her. In the 1930s, male individuality might be outdated, but for women it was revolutionary. The exaggerated capitalist, money-making, and masculine attitudes of Scarlett seem immoral, but in the 1930s when women just emerged from the confines of domesticity, and when traditional values were transforming, she, by her rejecting conventional binarism, and by expanding individualism to include women, was acting out the repressed unconscious of her culture and nation. If a woman earns her own money and experiences success—and recognizes its significance (what Scarlett failed to do in its full implication)—she does not need the protection of men, she does not have to obey, thus she can enter the road that leads to autonomy, self-fulfillment, and independence—in her own way.
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